I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.

When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?

Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.

Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.

The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.

So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).

I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analogmagazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.

What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.

It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.


November 11th is Remembrance Day in my home country of Canada, a day to remember all of those soldiers wounded or killed in conflicts since our nation began, and those in uniform who guard her still today, in the hope that remembering is the first step toward eventually eliminating war. Coincidentally, this week I was also reading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, originally written in the 1970’s after the author had served in the Vietnam War. The book won the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards in 1976 plus a number of others, so you can still find it in print and it’s very much worth a read. Without giving too much away, the novel describes an interstellar war with an alien race that lasts more than a thousand years, and it made me wonder if we truly will still have war millennia from now.

Even without factoring in extraterrestrial aliens, it seems to me that we will continue to make war as long as:

1)    There are large inequities between groups of people.

2)    We enable and reinforce ways to define ourselves as “us” and “them”, allowing us to think of “others” as “the enemy” instead of just people.

3)    We can convince ourselves that killing and dying is preferable to communicating and compromising.

4)    War is an economic tool.

5)    There are people who can order others to be sacrificed at no cost to themselves.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that technological progress related to combat is all about more powerful weapons and defenses, and not at all about trying to end war (except in the sense of winning faster by gaining an advantage).

What would peace-fostering progress be like?

It seems to me that the best way to reduce inequality around the world is some form of world government. Not to replace current national and regional governments (at least not right away), but to tackle big picture issues fairly, address the problems that truly do affect all of us on this planet, and to be the final arbiter of regional disputes. And we’d better hurry this along, because climate change is going to create some horrendous refugee crises and border conflicts within the next few decades if we aren’t proactive and very, very cooperative.

We’ve got more ways than ever before to learn about others who share our world, and communicate in spite of barriers of distance, language, or culture. We need to continue to encourage pan-global socializing, partnering, and trade. We’re a lot less likely to want to go to war with a place where we have business partners and friends.

War as an economic driver? Surely there are other large-scale projects we can all get aboard that demand a similar mobilization of resources. The conquest of space is an obvious favourite of mine, but harnessing the energy of sun, wind, tide and other natural forces to replace fossil fuels would also be a win for everyone (but the oil companies). I’m sure there are lots of other worthy international pursuits that don’t involve killing and dying.

Conflicts within my lifetime have all too often (if not always) involved leaders misleading their people into thinking war was the only way. Well, neural research has made great strides in detecting and understanding brain processes. How hard could it be to fit leaders with virtually infallible lie detectors—a little gadget attached to the skull at their swearing in ceremony? It’d give them the means to say, “Sure, Joe, I know you gave a lot to my campaign, and I know you’ve got some new missiles you really want to try out. But no can do this week, sorry.”

And how many wars do you think would be declared if there were a global law that any leader who sends troops to die must also sacrifice themselves—under a death sentence, not commutable, to be executed immediately following the death of the first soldier or civilian?

I think that just might cool the bloodlust in a big hurry.